Best hairdo: Bobby Canavale’s nape in “Blue Jasmine.” Best scene: Greta Gerwig running in “Frances Ha” to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” Best newcomer: Barkhad Abdi in “Captain Phillips.” Best acting award: New York City in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Best documentary: “The Act of killing.” So much to be thankful for this year. Here are my favorites among those films which had an official U.S. release.
1. “Captain Phillips” – “Castaway” actor Tom Hanks has to contend with a gang of Somali pirates who’ve hijacked his container-carrying ship in the area known as the horn of Africa. Edge-of-your-seat stuff. Terrifying. Paul Greengrass steers this sea-bound drama free and clear of any cliches or sentimentality. Excellent performance by newcomer Barkhad Abdi (directed by Paul Greengrass).
2. Inside Llewyn Davis – The New York of the sixties holds a kind of sacred significance. It’s the decade when downtown was the place to be, not just in terms of music but also literature and art. The Coen Brothers recreate this perfectly and Oscar Isaac, playing the Llewyn of the title, is just the right choice to impersonate the so-so guitarist in search of another–perhaps better?–life (directed by Ethan and Joel Coen).
3. Blue is the Warmest Colour: Bliss, post-sex K.O., an explicit soundtrack. “Blue,” about an unlikely romance that quickly turns stupid intense, is the perfect antidote to those gay-averse jerks crowding up our streets for the past few years and holding up their stupid banners about traditional family values. In making such an excellent movie (“Blue” won the top nod at the Cannes Festival) director Abdellatif Kechiche was helped by newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos who gives a natural and poignant performance. For some mysterious reason, however, she shared her Cannes Best Actress award with fellow leading lady Lea Seydoux–reliable, as usual, but not as deserving of the award as Exarchopoulos (directed by Abdellatif Kechiche).
4. “Frances Ha” When did our idiosyncrasies and the ordinariness of everyday life become so compelling? Noah Baumbach’s script can be a little meandering at times but “Frances Ha,” in the person of Greta Gerwig, is such a terrific gem that you can’t look away. Gerwig plays a self-conscious and quirky dancer in her late twenties (pair her up with Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis and there’s at least two rom-coms in there). She saunters from one semi-failure to another, makes quick and unprocessed decisions that land her on her ass. Literally (directed by Noah Baumbach).
5. “12 Years a Slave” – Director Steve McQueen’s dramatization of America’s greatest sin, slavery, is searing and unflinching. Solomon Northup, a free man (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is sold into slavery in the deep South after being deceived by some would-be business associates. Ejiofor’s performing is incandescent as he initially fights, and eventually becomes resigned, to his condition. What’s especially devastating about this film is how we’re made to witness the total annihilation of a man at his very own hand. McQueen asks an essential question, that is, what it is that makes us free? (see Kevin Bowen’s FULL REVIEW)
6. “Blue Jasmine” – Just when you thought Woody Allen was at a risk of becoming a has-been he stuns us with this new and magical film set in exotic San Francisco starring Cate Blanchett channeling Blanche Dubois. Pure joy. Allen can still run a tight ship (REVIEW).
7. “Spring Breakers” – Lest we forget our American indie heroes and the risks they’re willing to shoulder. Harmony Korine made a radical proposition: to take his Disney princesses down to a bloody spring break. What you ultimately thought of this trashy and melancoly adventure is nearly pointless, “Spring breakers” is hallucinatory as it is realistic in its depiction of a generation.
8. “American Hustle” – If you just wanted to find out how glamorous Amy Adams can be (she’s got about fifty wardrobe changes in this movie) then “American Hustle” is a must-see. But David O. Russell gets everything right in re-creating a style and shot this movie using film. He rewrote Eric Singer’s script for “Hustle” and must’ve felt culturally grounded in the movie’s particular time period because “American Hustle” is fulfilled and fulfilling a political/gangster thriller as I have ever seen recently (see the full review here)
9. “World War Z” – If only for director Marc Forster’s ability to avoid the pitfalls usually associated with a zombie movie (excessive gore, laugh-out-loud funny characters that are supposed to be scary) “Z” deserves to be on this list. I remember walking out of the theater feeling so surprised that the gore factor was non-existent. How could this be? Forster did not take his audience for drooling idiots and delivered a tense and well-paced thriller made all the more intense by the virtuosic and subtle performances of Mireille Enos and Brad Pitt.
10. “The Act of Killing” – Using a brilliant narrative process filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer lifts the veil on a very dark chapter of Indonesian history–in fact, of human history altogether. The film is filled with scenes that are each one more incredible to watch than the other, and it is with a sinking heart that we are made to realize that such a tragedy did exist, and did occur. “The Act of Killing” is a brave and necessary film, a rational and subtle work that is rarely seen at the theater (see our full review here) and my favorite documentary this year.
Ali Naderzad can be reached on Twitter.